The campaign to lodge the title of my first book, Courtroom 302, in the mind of the book-buying public began in mid-March, 11 days before the first copies were to land in bookstores. In an Atlanta courthouse that morning Brian Nichols grabbed a deputy's gun and used it to kill a judge, a court reporter, and a deputy. My publicist immediately issued a press release: "Chicago Journalist Available for Breaking News."
Courtroom violence isn't a subject of Courtroom 302, and during the year I spent watching a criminal courtroom at 26th and California all the defendants were remarkably well behaved. But my publicist assured me that TV producers, who doubtless would be portraying the homicidal rampage in Atlanta as a sign of a new and frightening trend, would be interested in balancing that depiction with my views.
Less than an hour after the press release was issued my phone rang. It was a producer for a national cable news show, whose job was to determine my usefulness as an expert. "I've got two questions for you," he said. "First, are you available later today?"
I said I was.
"OK," he said. "So, our courtrooms are a lot more dangerous these days, aren't they?"
"Well, not necessarily--"
"OK, we'll call you if we need you," the producer said, and hung up. Apparently they didn't.
But the next day I was sitting in a frigid studio in the Loop, waiting to go on a special two-hour live broadcast of At Large With Geraldo Rivera. On a monitor I could see Geraldo standing outside the Atlanta courthouse, alternating interviews with guests standing next to him and talking heads in studios around the country. He introduced a man by name and said he was a friend of Nichols. The man, looking confused, said that wasn't his name and he wasn't a friend of Nichols. Flustered, Geraldo lurched through an apology, saying he'd been up for 36 hours and he was going to rough up his producers.
A few minutes later I was called to the set. A Chicago private eye, a Fox News regular, was already sitting in a chair on a small deck. The producer wanted me on the deck too so that Geraldo could talk with both of us, but the deck wasn't big enough for two chairs. The producer shoved a slab of wood partway under the deck, balanced a chair precariously on the deck and the slab, and told me to sit in it. I pictured myself toppling over on live TV.
Meanwhile the producer's young assistant was hunting vainly for an earpiece for me. "I need to get one from downstairs!" he yelled at the producer.
"Get the fuck moving!" the producer shouted.
"I'll have it in two minutes!"
"We got 45 seconds!"
The assistant pressed the earpiece into my ear just in time, but it popped out when Geraldo asked me his opening question. My first comment on the show was, "I can't hear you."
Geraldo asked why I'd written the book. I'd been expecting a question about Atlanta, so my answer was lame. He looked annoyed and asked if I had something to say that was pertinent to his show.
I managed to recover, explaining that deputies at 26th and California aren't allowed to carry guns, so defendants can't take them away, and pointing out that there hadn't been a shooting in the courthouse in 35 years. Geraldo said it seemed a good point, but then he moved on to another guest.
Still, the cover of Courtroom 302 had been displayed briefly on the screen. My publicist was ecstatic.
When: Tue 5/17, 5:30 PM
Where: Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State